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So You Want to Write A Western
by Dusty Richards
Those giant cactus called Saguaros with arms
like a person twisted up to the sky do not grow in Texas. I dont care what
choreographers in what western movie put them there on the silver screen as part
of the Lone Star States landscape; they only grow in central Arizona down into
Mexico. They are not natural plants even across the shallow, muddy Colorado
River on the California side. In a recent new novel, this author wrote the
Johnson grass brushed the mans leg riding down in the Canadian River bottoms in
western Oklahoma. The year 1870. While that is a common plant now in that
region, Colonel Johnson brought the seed from Africa to the Deep South in the
1880s. When Dan Case asked me to write a how-to article on writing the west--I
thought perhaps I should first write what not to write.
First, I dont want to scare anyone away from
writing the western genera. But I do suggest you make a trip to the west and do
some good research on your subject first. Take some side roads and get out,
smell, taste and see the land. The grease wood bushes smells like creosote
lumber. Ponderosa pine forests have a turpentine aroma. Sagebrush smells just
like the seasoning used in turkey dressing.
We moved westward from the Mississippi River
into a vast grassland. Many trees we see today as we progress west were planted
in the dust bowl era. In Missouri and Arkansas, forests did exist, but the
primal virgin forests were huge trees that spread out without under growth--blue
grass and blue stems grew beneath them. By the time your person reached western
Missouri--head high giant blue stems and like grass grew in a belt from Canada
to the gulf. They had to cut the grass to make the survey for the Union Pacific
railroad across Nebraska it was so tall. A man on horseback couldnt see over it
going up the Platt River Valley.
Indian attacks on wagon trains were very limited
to isolated incidents where the small number of wagons made them vulnerable.
There was a six-week window to leave for the West. When grass broke dormancy
they all left in a steady stream--the Oregon trail was a ten-mile wide desolate
area after a few years from over grazing and split the huge buffalo herds into
two that formally migrated north and south like geese.
People waited days for the bison herds to pass
in the early days. Major causes of death were disease, bad water, rattlesnake
bites, drowning at river crossings, lightening strikes, accidental gunshot
wounds, bandits and then Indians. Oxen were the main choice of draft animal.
First they were cheap. They could get by on grass without grain. Many mules were
used on the Santa Fe trail in the overland trade business. Draft horses were the
least desirable. Remember how small a wagon box is--not a North American van. A
space four by sixteen. You needed farm utensils like a plow and seed, your food
for the trip and water barrels. People were forced to abandon all sorts of
furniture and items along the trailcouldnt haul them and get there. Most were
used for firewood. The main fuel for cooking was buffalo chips. I recommend you
build a fire with dried cow chips and see what a sorry fuel it is to cook over.
And write down in your journal and book what the smoke smelled like.
No 7-11s, no refrigeration--little water once
you reached what is western Kansas today. No place to bath or wash your clothes.
Most followed rivers, the Oregon trail followed the Platt, the Santa Fe tracked
the Arkansas, but these soon became small streams.
Contrary to western movies, the principal
firearm was a cap and ball rifle or pistol. Until the year 1872, there were few
cartridge weapons like we have today. Even after that folks still used powder
and ball, because it was cheaper and some found it more dependable. The original
repeating rifles like the Spencer and Winchester, had rim fire ammo and spit the
bullet out to a short range. Pistols like the Colt were belly guns and like Jim
Bowies famous knife good in close range for a fight. Dont have someone before
1872 jamming shells in his six-gun. The .22 was available to shoot small game
from before the civil war. Shotguns too, but many were muzzle loaded. A famous
English made one was called the "Greener." The great fifty-caliber Sharps
buffalo gun was a virtual cannon. It could kill buffalo at near a quarter mile
range. Hide hunters could shoot an entire herd down and if they made good kill
shots the herd never noticed.
Saloons provided mostly bad liquor and warm
beer. They were the gathering places for the male society. Gambling was big.
From wheel games to pasteboard cards, people wagered to win or lose fortunes in
gold, cattle and ranching empires. Places like Tombstone provided it all--so the
high-paid miners (three to five dollars a day) spent it and didnt go back
Prostitution was the way of life in a
woman-short society. Ages of the workers in cathouses and cribs began as young
as twelve. Bat Masterson, a famous Kansas frontier lawman, who later became a
successful New York sports writer was listed as living in Dodge City with a
thirteen year old concubine in the 1870 census. He was in his mid twenties at
the time. School marms were usually married off as quick as they arrived. Out of
desperation, a Cochise County board sent a board member back east to hire
one--fat and ugly. The effort was considered a success. Their candidate lasted
six months at teaching before some bowlegged cowboy escorted her up the
The longhorn cattle and the
drives to the railhead and to stock the range left open by the disseminated
buffalo lasted almost thirty years. We had eaten every chicken and hog during
the civil war--men who walked home from Virginia to Arkansas said they never
heard a rooster crow. The North was entering the machine age and had money for
protein--many Corn Belt farmers had no market for their corn except to feed
cattle. Texas was poor as mud, but had lots of cattle. A man named Joe McCoy
solved that by building the first major rail shipping location at Abilene,
Kansas and sending agents to Texas--he had a market for those steers that were
down there for the taking. This effort made the major ranches of Texas and the
small ones too.
The economic times from the civil war to 1900
were some of the wildest in history. Deep depressions, high interest rates, then
boom periods that collapsed again. The opening of the Indian lands to
homesteaders was caused by the large number of jobless--rather than to have them
storm Washington D.C., politicians had the land rushes. They plowed up land that
would have been much better left in grass. Contrary to scientists theory at the
time--we soon learned the rain did not follow the steel plow and the short grass
regions turned to wasteland.
Tumble weeds came in the wheat seed the Russian
immigrants brought in the 1870s. Their hard winter wheat was the salvation for
the plains. Much as sorghum replaced corn in the later part of the century as a
more dependable crop in the dry land.
It is now politically correct to say Indians
were great conservationists. Thats good malarkey. The Indian stole the horse
from the Spaniard and he went out on the plains. Off horseback he could hunt the
buffalo and made a new society of hunter. The success of the hunting process
meant that more papooses survived in their Stone Age society. People like the
Sioux proliferated. The Blackfeet, a one time major, angry tribe, who attacked
Lewis and Clark, died of the small pox before what we called the Indian wars
that followed the civil war.
These Stone Age people ranged from the buffalo
hunters who were at the top of the list to the lowly Digger Indians who ate
insects. From the civilized many-languaged Pueblo Indians that lived in adobe
towns along the Rio Grande in New Mexico to the late arriving nomadic Navajo and
Apaches who came down from Alaska only a few years before Columbus found this
Twenty thousand U.S. soldiers in southern
Arizona tried to capture Geronimo. Lieutenant Gatewood and a handful of Apache
Scouts of the same tribe finally got him to surrender and come out of Mexico.
Custer was killed on a hot day in June, 1876 in southern Montana because he
underestimated the enemy and refused to take any Gatling guns along. That would
have slowed them down and maybe General Terry would have gotten to the Little
Big Horn in time.
Let me end this with a discussion on money.
Coins were so short after the civil war--they printed them on paper. The West
wanted a silver standard so their mines would be successful. When a silver bill
failed to pass congress, the silver business failed too. Mines shut down. The
Mexican peso was accepted as a dollar. The more unusual monetary form was the
whorehouse tokens produced by various businesses. Some were very explicit in
what they would buy and had their value stamped on them from fifty cents to five
dollars. These were acceptable in normal trade for face value.
Stagecoaches made ten miles an hour, with
frequent changes of horses and bad food at all stops. They tipped over easily
and many wrecks occurred. For that time, Butterfields completion of the stage
line from Tipton, Missouri to San Francisco was a bigger thing than any of our
modern space endeavors. Passenger trains ran 20 mph to save the tracks--freight
only 12 mph.
Oh yes. Jesse and Frank James managed to evade
the law from 1865 till Jesse was shot by one of his own men in the back--the
dirty little coward--in April, 1882, an eighteen year almost nation-wide crime
For goodness sake, study history before you try
to write westerns. In a future article, we will discuss the how-to as I see it
to write western fiction.
© Copyright 2005, Dusty Richards
Dusty Richards is the author of over sixty novels under his own name and pseudonyms. The past two years his novels THE NATURAL and THE ABILENE TRAIL have won the book-of-the-year award at Oklahoma Writers Federation conference. Currently on the stands are THE FORT SMITH TRAIL and DEUCES WILD from Pocket Books and a collection of his western short
stories, WALTZING WITH TUMBLEWEEDS, from AWOCBooks.COM. For more about Dusty, visit his website at www.DustyRichards.com